07 December 2022

130 Years Ago ... A Longford Deaf Man, Charged with Murdering his Mother - and Committed to an Asylum

A shocking case from 1892 where an uneducated Deaf man killed his own mother.

 Catherine Kean (or Keane, or Kane) was an 80 year old widow living in Fostragh, Co. Longford, a small townland near Aughnacliffe and near the Cavan border. She lived with her son John Kean, who seemed to have been uneducated, and never to have attended school.
On 8 June 1892 John attacked his mother with a knife. According to an RIC report, the motive seems to have been that John wanted money to buy clothes but Catherine refused. It seemed unlikely that such a small matter would have led to a homicide; perhaps communication difficulties or mistreatment of John contributed also, but the fact is that we will never know - for reasons which shall become clear. 
A summary description of the death of Catherine Kean by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Source: Outrage Reports, 1892, National Archives of Ireland.

 John fled from the scene and his mother died 11 days after the attack. John was arrested in Cavan and on 1 July was committed to Sligo Prison until the next Leinster Assizes court hearing in Wicklow.

John Kean in the Sligo Prison records in 1892. Source: www.FindMyPast.ie

Source: Irish Independent, 2 December 1892, p. 6
When the Assizes opened in early December, the presiding judge drew the jury's attention to an important fact He described John Kean as "wholly illiterate ... unable to speak in any of those various modes by which modern science has shown that knowledge can be conveyed to an unfortunate person in his condition." This patronising tone and reference to 'speech' is misleading; the judge was referring to the fact that John could not hear, speak, read, write or - apparently - sign, all of which methods could be used in court to answer an indictment and put in a plea. John needed to be able to understand the evidence against him - without this, the trial could not continue.
Because this was in doubt, a separate jury had to be sworn to determine if John was "sufficiently sane to understand the nature of the charge against him, and the pleadings connected with the charge". This was not a straightforward examination of 'sanity' in the sense of mental health, but an examination of whether John could understand the charges, the evidence, and the proceedings.
Source: Irish Times, 10 December 1892
John's brother Bernard was called as a witness and said that John "did not understand the deaf and dumb alphabet" and "was never at school", but he could "communicate with him so as to make him understand what he wanted him to do in the way of work".
It seemed Bernard was not confident enough to be able to interpret the court proceedings for John, nor was this course of action even suggested. The Sligo prison medical officer also suggested that John was "of weak intellect and incapable of understanding the character of the crime with which he was charged".
Overall, the jury found that John was incapable of pleading - either guilty or not guilty. It was impossible to find out from John what had happened, why, whether he admitted to killing his mother or not. 
As was the case at the time for so-called 'criminal lunatics', John was committed to a lunatic asylum - the Dundrum Criminal Lunatic Asylum. (This was since renamed the Dundrum Central Mental Hospital, and was recently closed down a few months ago.)
A drawing of the Dundrum Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Source: https://www.crimeinmind.co.uk/ctshowcase-team-member/1845-dundrum-hospital/
John is mentioned in the state Report on asylums in 1893, and was still in Dundrum in 1901 and is recorded in the Census of Ireland. 
An anonymised mention of John Kean in the 42nd Report of Inspectors of Lunatics (Ireland) in 1893.

John Kean in the 1901 Census of Ireland, in the Dundrum Criminal Lunatic Asylum. (Line 70)

Between 1901 and 1911 he was transferred to the lunatic asylum in Mullingar nearer to his family:
John Kean in the 1911 Census of Ireland - Mullingar Lunatic Asylum. (Line 826) Please note - John was never married - the description of 'widower' is inaccurate.
He died in 1915:
John's death certificate, 1915. Source: https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/images/deaths_returns/deaths_1915/05272/4463466.pdf
One wonders how different his trial would have been had John been sent to a Deaf school, giving him language and literacy to communicate; maybe the crime would never be committed at all.

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